Imre “Imi” Lichtenfeld (May 26, 1910 – January 9, 1998) was an Israeli martial artist who founded the Krav Maga self-defence system that is used by many police and armed forces around the world today.
Lichtenfeld was born on May 26, 1910, to a Hungarian Jewish family in Budapest. As a young man, Lichtenfeld was a successful boxer and wrestler. He competed at national and international levels and was a champion and member of the Slovakian National Wrestling Team. In the late 1930s, anti-Semitic riots threatened the Jewish population of Bratislava. Together with other Jewish boxers and wrestlers, Lichtenfeld helped to defend his Jewish neighbourhood against racist gangs. He quickly realized that sport has little in common with real combat and began developing a system of techniques for practical self-defence in life threatening situations. He developed his fundamental self-defence principle: ‘use natural movements and reactions’ for defence, combined with an immediate and decisive counterattack. From this evolved the refined theory of ‘simultaneous defence and attack’ while ‘never occupying two hands in the same defensive movement.’
In 1940, Lichtenfeld fled the Nazi occupation of his homeland, heading for Palestine on the Aliyah Bet vessel, Pencho, which shipwrecked on the Greek Dodecanese Islands. He arrived in Palestine in 1942 after serving with great notoriety in the Czech Legion. The Haganah’s leaders immediately recognized Lichtenfeld’s fighting prowess and ingenuity. In 1944 Imi began training fighters in his areas of expertise: physical fitness, swimming, wrestling, use of the knife, and defences against knife attacks. During this period, Imi trained several elite units of the Hagana and Palmach (striking force of the Hagana and forerunner of the special units of the IDF), including the Pal-yam, as well as groups of police officers. In 1948, when the Israel was founded and the IDF was formed, Imi became Chief Instructor for Physical Fitness and Krav Maga at the IDF School of Combat Fitness. He served in the IDF for about 20 years, during which time he developed and refined his unique method for self-defence and hand-to-hand combat After he finished his active duty, Imi began adapting and modifying Krav Maga to civilian needs.
The method was formulated to suit everyone – man and woman, boy or girl, who might need it to save his or her life or survive an attack while sustaining minimal harm, whatever the background of the attack – criminal, nationalistic, or other. To disseminate his method, Imi established two training centers, one in Tel Aviv and the other in Netanya.
In 1964, Lichtenfeld retired from the Israeli military. He then modified Krav Maga to fit the needs of police forces and ordinary civilians. He trained teams of Krav Maga instructors, who were accredited by him and the Israeli Ministry of Education. He also created the Israeli Krav Maga Association in 1978. On January 9, 1998, Lichtenfeld died in Netanya, Israel, at the age of 87